Normandy, this Sunday, on a grey, early-February day, seemed empty and almost closed. Apart from the chattering and irreverent French school group, snaking down from the magnificent medieval gothic cathedral of Bayeux, vaulting in its simple brilliance, through the defiantly haute bourgeois and rather charming town of Bayeux. With its original 16th century wooden cross-beamed buildings, the lovely centre presents a French-Tudor aspect, to a head rooted in Shakespeare, though on the roundabout sweeping you into town, arms at his hips as ever, legs set attentively apart, is a far more modern vision, in the large metal statue of General Montgomery, with a stone gateway behind, staring towards the city of Caen, that he paused to attack for two months, for fear of casualties. But it is armed with a taped guide, piping jaunty medieval music at you, that you can enjoy Bayeux’s most famous ‘World’ attraction, that almost thousand-year old tapestry, that stretches for nearly seventy stitched metres behind its glass case in the town-house museum.
The great Bayeux Tapestry seems at first a bit of old cloth, perhaps a cover for a very long French bolster, until each scene is explained by the nifty recording in its full story-telling aspect. As it would have been displayed, for two weeks a year, in that great Cathedral, for a mostly illiterate medieval populace, to explain to them the ways of the Great and the Good, or not so good. The tapestry, of course, commemorates William’s and the Norman’s conquest of England. Commissioned by archbishop Odo of Bayeux, it does more than that though. It tells the very detailed story of the Confessor dispatching Harold to see his cousin William in France, of his capture at the hands of a local French noble, William suing for his release into his hands and Harold’s oath that the crown will pass to William on Edward’s death. It is of course a case of woven propaganda, even if oaths and the family relationships of noble houses were enormously politically important. As they believed they were, right up until the First World War, when Historians and theorists began to argue about other world forces, pressing to the individual, from economic imperatives to Marxist teleologies, sweeping us all before them.
The unfolding scenes also depict Harold fighting alongside Normans against a French nobility, local warlords really, like the English barons, his return to England and of course the Confessor’s death in 1066 and Harold’s coronation, so breaking his oath to William the bastard. So to the all-dominating theme of that remarkable tableaux; massed warfare and invasion. Most of the larger sequences are dedicated to the construction of that Armada and invasion force then, underlining how real warfare is a truly social enterprise, dependant not only on men and arms, hero or not, but ships, food, drink and supplies. The landing at Pevensey and the Battle of Hastings is presented in extraordinary detail, its triumphs and losses, with the bad omen of Haley’s comet streaking overhead, in barely faded threads, and the Saxon’s near rout of the French invading force, believing William dead, until he lifts his visor and the battle turns. The importance of the Norman archers, firing skyward, is stressed, as the lower strip is littered with mutilated bodies, until you reach that most piercing moment, to the Anglo-Saxon mind, Harold’s death from an arrow in his eye, and several in his body too.
It was rather appropriate then to ‘do’ those famous beaches, from which the French set out to cross the channel a thousand years ago, on the way to the Brittany Ferry back to the UK, from the incredibly badly signposted port of Ouistreham. The French still seem to want to look away when they contemplate ‘The Door of England’, La Porte D’Angleterre, and their arcane signposting can be its own kind of weave, in Bayeux or elsewhere. But I had set off that morning from my host’s house near Carentan and popped down to the beautiful sandy beaches at places like Colville-Sur-Mer, Arromanche and Pont Du Bessin. I had another purpose though, apart from interest and getting home, and that was trying to track the fate of an American friend’s relation, who died near St Lo in 1944, when an invasion force, the largest ever mounted in the history of the world, came the other way to the Normans, on D-Day, June 6th. Normandy may be stripped of tourists right now, but it certainly flags those events nearly seventy years ago, in giant roadside signs, and its seaside tourist industry makes full use of it too. So French place names have taken on others, far more modern and resonant, in the annals of change and time – Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold, where the might of the allied Invasion force struck back against Nazi occupied Europe. Names that as a boy certainly stirred my blood heroically.
Utah and Omaha, where the Western Invasion force landed, US troops in Operation Overlord, lie West and East of the twin legged estuary that feeds the sleepy town of Carentan and competes with the canal system that once brought French butter to the coast, to be imported surprisingly into England in the 19th century. The British and Canadian troops landed east of them, at Sword, Juno and Gold, the Eastern Invasion force, and although Utah, Omaha and others have returned to a golden vista of sand and surf, edged with low slung chalet style holiday homes, and to remind you that life really should be a beach, it is only really at Arromanche that you get a taste of what it must have been like, and of the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ that day, to quote Wilfred Owen’s grizzled First War lines. There the beach, despite the shrugging, insouciant disinterest of the French desk clerk at The Museum of Disembarkation, perhaps a residue of a Gallic or Norman contempt for all foreigners, especially English ones, is still littered with huge metal hulks from one of the most remarkable episodes of the war. Just as the wide bay is ringed with a large metal semi-circle of what constituted ‘Mulberry B’, a transportable Mulberry Harbour, to protect the men and crafts trying to disembark, from the wrath of the sea itself. Apparently it was Churchill’s own idea, to raise that vital visor of leadership, and even Bastard William on that other shore that day, despite so much criticism of Churchill’s own military tactics and input. Hence this place too has been given another name, ‘Port Winston’.
If the Bayeux Tapestry highlights the importance of the ‘war effort’ as a mass enterprise, a thousand years before, Arromanche writes it across the coastline in rusting pontoons and humble though crucial metal memorials. Memorials not only to the men firing weapons, but to the engineering corps that constructed the thing in the first place, and so much else, and the numerous support units of war too. Like the portent of Haley’s Comet though, back in 1066, a storm had struck the channel – to return to the weave of cloth and clothes, ‘The sleeve’ in French, La Manche – and almost delayed that fateful D-Day on June 6th. It went ahead, but another terrible storm was to strike in the week of the 9th June, 1944, the Great Storm, that lasted until the 17th. That Mulberry Harbour withstood its natural bombardments though and did its remarkable work too, far outlasting its envisioned use, and making Arromanche perhaps rightly ‘The Key to the Liberation of Europe’, as the sign says, and the vital foothold that fed the advance south: The door to France.
Of course it was the mass effort that constituted the astonishment of those Normandy Landings too. The months of prior bombing, disrupting bridge, rail and road in occupied France, the work of intelligence networks, the sea and merchant war and the massive Armada of Men and materials that was stock-piled across the channel and then set in motion. Like those Norman archers, the domination of the skies too. If, in driving through Normandy’s flat, crow-specked fields you also touch an earlier if recent age, in contemplating war, the horrifying vision of dug-in, mass trench warfare, man to man, bayonet to bayonet in the First ‘Great’ War, World War II was marked by enormous leaps in technology. It defined the power and direction of the rapidly moving German Panza Divisions, for instance, or ultimately the race for the Bomb. Who can say if such things are better or worse, but to return to those broken bodies below that ancient tapestry, and the agony or thrill of fighting on the ground, I turned my thoughts back to my friend’s relative and made a little pilgrimage to Colville-Sur-Mer.
It is of course, despite that Museum man’s insistence on the French name, which reminded me of how my Dad exploded once with Churhcillian fury on a Paris railway platform, crying ‘you weren’t so bloody rude when we liberated you in 1945’, part of Omaha Beach, and just above it lies The American Cemetary in Normandy. If the coast has now been re-defined by the macho utility of military operational names, I stepped back seventy years when I rounded a rustic, medieval bend of French houses, grouped about those famously perpendicular ‘Norman’ church spires that would be built all over England, to see ‘Big Red One’ emblazoned on a farmhouse wall. Big Red One was of course the US First Army and its thrusting point was at Colville-sous-Omaha.
So to a walk in the sand and then to the hugely well signposted cemetery. If America, that land of salutes to the flag, in 11am school bells, tolling the free or brave before school shootings kick off again, knows how to do one thing extremely well, it is of course memorials, in its near obsession with the fallen. The cemetery is a shrine, a beach head for the dead, and truly stirring in those rows upon rows of simple white marble crosses, on the rise of land above the sea, that tell how men from Florida, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and every US state, with names as varied as Mazzinni or Carruthers too, met their end on the beaches and in the fields of France. Like the Lincoln Monument in Washington, it echoes not so much with triumphalism, but an endless seeking for some lasting and hallowed ideal; that great American split, perhaps, between high idealism and true hard ball, defined in size and the monumentality of power and might. Yet, and not forgetting our own war effort, it is there too where you shiver to remember just how important those days were, and what we were really fighting for too. As my host commented, in dismissing so many who argue the ‘impressive’ might of the German war machine, whether it first foundered on the Russian Front or not, and in talking of their viciousness and in the end human obscenity, he stressed, in the hard terms of a veteran military historian, ‘well, I consider that a failure’. He meant Nazi soldiering. Of course, and in so many other ways too.
In its generous grounds, and clipped, well-tended box hedges that US satellite in Europe is of course also extremely well-funded. So, in the museum beside it, there is a brilliant exhibit, relaying war footage of the landings, and news footage of Eisenhower and others. It also highlights a mass effort, like the tapestry, and in its spare physical exhibits reminds you of the importance of the soldiers kit bag, while before you step out among those serried graves, in a large glass case there is simply a WWII rifle, stuck into gravel, bearing just a tilting tin helmet. That icon nearly made me cry. Though my investigations into today’s cultural values did not, in stopping at the Macdonalds on the way to the ferry to compare tastes and find them exactly the same in France, London, or New York, fill me with the wonder of World union, it is, on that spit of land, a fanfare to the common man indeed, Copland’s dawn. For all its problems in terms of America’s enormous capacity for forgetting, or for sometimes glorifying the wrong end of war, the barrel of a gun. Very striking too in its difference to Paris’s great cemetery, that I had visited the week before – Pere La Chaise.
There lies the monumental masonry not only of the French dead, but intense cultural hierarchies and the impossible aspirations of families and dynasties to outstrip eternity itself. The tombs in eerie, ancient Pere La Chaise are like little stone beach huts, row on row, casketing the blown ashes, literally, of what we cannot hold back individually. Yet of course it is a place of defiant individuation too, in the names of many famous Frenchmen and women, including the fallen in both wars, but also others that made a far less conventional mark, whether it matters or not, from Jim Morrison to Oscar Wilde. It was Wilde’s rather bizarre grave, an art deco monument to a semi-eqyptian angel of inspiration, that I paused over most, among the gravelled dirt and nearly melted snow in Paris. The snow drops were coming. In the end I found those marble crosses at Colville more moving though, if less interesting – perhaps it was that movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, always tipping us towards the point of human meaning, though verging too on American sentimentality. If those crosses told you very little about what happened to the US soldiers, and what they did, saw and felt. Perhaps it does not matter, because we all know it now. You do not have to wander through to find something of your own past either, because on screens inside the effective museum you can now call up that honoured roll call at the touch of a button, and find out where they lie.
I didn’t find my friend’s relative, ‘JT’, just as I know nothing about him, but then only 40% of the US dead lie here. The rest were shipped back home, or perhaps lie in cemeteries elsewhere. But since this was a pilgrimage, I lit a little night light that I had brought along for JT and others, wrestling to stay alight in the stiff sea wind stirring the clipped grass, in front of one of those crosses, of which there are many, that say the same thing in the end, “Known only to God”. In a thousand years time, perhaps as distant yet telling an image of the Unkown Soldier as those barely recognisable faces, beyond the identifiable Kings and Bishops, on that great weave in Bayeux.